a SIFF 2017 review
Quietly Personal Hero an Emotional Triumph for Elliott
Quiet, personal and refreshingly introspective, The Hero is an old fashioned drama filled with heart and emotional nuance that also happens to offer the great Sam Elliott one of the best opportunities of his 48-year career. It’s one of the finest performances the veteran screen icon has ever given, co-writer and direct Brett Haley gifting him a role that allows the actor to go places he’s rarely been given the opportunity to travel to before. Watching him is as true a joy as anything 2017 has offered up to this point, this man of the gravely, instantly recognizable voice who has been in everything from Frogs, to Lifeguard, to Mask, to Road House, to The Big Lebowski, to We Were Soldiers delivering in ways that held me spellbound for every second of this film’s leisurely paced 93 minutes.
Cinematic Western legend Lee Hayden (Elliott) hasn’t had a decent role since the 1970s. Stranded doing voiceovers for radio and television BBQ sauce commercials, spending long portions of his day lounging at fellow thespian Jeremy Frost’s (Nick Offerman) apartment smoking pot, estranged from his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter) and on coldly cordial speaking terms with his ex-wife Valarie (Katharine Ross), life has slowed down considerably for the aging actor. But after his appearance with young comedian Charlotte Dylan (Laura Prepon) at an awards banquet being held in his honor goes viral, the opportunity for Lee to cement his legacy with one final signature role drops right into his lap, the only thing holding him back decades of insecurities born from his being a rather poor father and an inattentive husband.
Haley’s movie, much like with his winning 2015 drama I’ll See You in My Dreams starring a superlative Blythe Danner and featuring Elliott in a crucial supporting role, doesn’t break a lot in the way of new ground. When a cancer diagnosis gets thrown into the equation, I can’t say the revelation came as a shock. Same with how the May-December romance between Lee and Charlotte hits a roadblock, the items causing friction developing between the two of them predictably simplistic. It’s all fairly straightforward, Haley and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Marc Basch not exactly reinventing the wheel as far as this specific journey is concerned.
And all of that ends up being perfectly okay. Haley and Basch don’t need to subvert convention; they don’t need to throw in any weird obnoxious twists. Instead, they’ve focused on writing a strong, three-dimensional character whose life experiences and choices make him a captivating figure worthy of the audience’s emotional investment. Lee is a real guy. He’s made real decisions. He’s dealing with the real repercussions, both positive and negative, that have been generated by them. While Lee is a celebrity, while his voice is known by just about everyone he encounters, he’s still a regular guy easy to relate with and understand. As such, his story has actual weight and even more substantive meaning, allowing the lyrical ins and outs of his trek to hit home in a beautifully profound way that brought a couple of honest tears to my eyes by the time things moseyed to their gently cozy conclusion.
Elliott is magnificent. As wonderful as he was in I’ll See You in My Dreams, as borderline Oscar-worthy as his small supporting turn in Grandma proved to be, this performance aches with a tender naturalism that’s frankly stunning. It’s been ages since the actor has been asked to mine emotions this complex, probably since 1989’s underrated Christmas-themed gem Prancer, and as memorable as he’s been in a variety of features traversing any number of genres, little prepared me for just how amazing he was here. Whether having a brief heart-to-heart with his ex-wife at an art gallery or delivering an impromptu acceptance speech at an awards gala where he makes one lifelong fan’s dreams come true in ways she never could have imagined, Elliott nails every scene. It’s a superlative turn, and I’m hard-pressed to think of another actor who could have brought the same sort of lived-in gravitas to the role.
Case in point, after making a splash with his acceptance speech Lee is sent a script for a new big budget fantasy-adventure where he’ll play a supporting part that reads like it was written exclusively for him. The scene is played all the way through twice, once inside Jeremy’s apartment and a second time during an audition for the film’s excited director. Elliott makes both of these moments come ferociously alive, each in a mesmerizingly different way. Both of these scenes are devastating but for vastly different reasons, and where one reading is euphorically cathartic the other is poignantly heartbreaking. Elliott traverses this emotional minefield with skillful exactitude, lighting up the screen with a magnetic grace that left my breathlessly astonished in the process.
If The Hero isn’t quite as wondrous as Haley’s I’ll See You in My Dreams proved to be, this is still a fairly sensational Yin to that previous effort’s Yang. While what this story has to say isn’t original, it still makes its points with a pointedly minimalistic passion that affected me deeply. At the center of it all, in virtually every scene, Elliott turns in a performance for the ages, his triumphant inhabiting of the character one that all of us who witness it are almost guaranteed to be talking about for some time to come.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)